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10 Ways to Raise Free Range Kids and Stay Sane!

How to raise free range kids (and stay sane)

(photo source: PT Images)

Did you hear about the family, living in New York City, that left their 9 year old at Bloomingdales with $20 and instructions to take the subway home….alone? What is your first reaction to that?  Fear? Shock?  If so, you aren’t alone.  The child’s mother was nicknamed “America’s Worst Mother” and vilified all over the media.  Would it help to know that the child had begged for the chance to do it?  That he had always been encouraged to be independent and self-reliant? That the Bloomingdales was above a subway line he took numerous times during his childhood as a New Yorker?  That the whole family had discussed it and decided together? Maybe? Maybe not.  

Thing is, many of today’s parents grew up in the seventies and eighties and when we think back on our childhood we think of lots of independent experiences.  My husband used a combination of trains and busses around the suburbs of London to get to his secondary school.  I played outside, unsupervised, for hours and hours on end…my parents knew where I was at sundown because that was when I wandered home.  Otherwise, no one kept tabs on me.  That is, of course, except for the times I played hide and seek after dark roaming the neighborhood with nothing but a flashlight!  The implicit message my husband and I received from our parents was not one of neglect but rather, “I trust you know how to take care of yourself.  I trust you would know what to do if something happened.”

For Lenore Skenazy, the mother whose child made his way home via the subway, she was trying to tell her 9 year-old just that, “I trust you out there.  You have got what it takes!”.  (Presumably her husband was also saying the same thing, though the media focused nearly exclusively on her).  

The weekend her son’s adventure on the subway exploded as a media episode, Lenore started a blog called Free Range Kids and a movement was born.  On her blog,  Lenore explores the big and small ways parents can let go a little and teach kids greater independence and self-reliance.  As she says,

“Confident kids who feel at home in the world are SAFER than coddled kids who have been taught they are dainty prey without mom or dad by their side.” 

Let’s face it, the message kids receive when we are constantly shielding them from hurt is, “I DON’T think you can handle it.  You DON’T have what it takes.” Yikes! This is not the message I want to send to my kids but I can’t deny being gripped with fear for their well-being sometimes.  

Personally, I am not comfortable putting a child of 9 on the subway alone.  In fact, I have lots of worries about even smaller dangers….germs, broken bones, hurt feelings, ticks…and I frequently find myself trying to protect my kids from all of life’s ills.  I’m not sure where this intense instinct comes from but I’m battling to figure it out and let go a little.  Things are never that cut and dried anyway.  It’s not as if you are EITHER  helicopter parent or a free range parent.  That is silly.  Most of us are a messy mix of both, right? 

How to Raise Free Range Kids and Stay Sane

photo by Melissa Quaal {a happy stitch}

I never want to go completely against my instinct so I pulled together my own list of ten ways to raise free range kids & stay sane.  All of these ideas will vary by age, of course.  My hope is to accomplish them bit by bit as my two sons grow older.  I hope they are also inspiring for other free range strivers out there! 


1. Get Outside and Feel Good About it! 

The get outside part is obvious.  You know, GET OUTSIDE! But what is the “feel good about it” thing?  Parents, it’s just time to buckle down and do the research.  That’s right.  We need to find a good sunscreen and a good bug deterrent and get on with it.  Slather the good stuff on, spritz the bug spray of your choice and set the kids free outside.  When everyone is done playing outside you gotta wrestle those wiggly bodies and do a good check for ticks.  Just gotta do it and then let go of any additional worry.  

How to Raise Free Range Kids and Stay Sane

photo by Melissa Quaal {a happy stitch}


2. Go off trail.

In some places, there are good reasons to stay on a trail such as an area with endangered plants or poisonous snakes but, most of the time, exploring off the trail is just fine!  Plus, it’s where the toads, frogs, good bugs and interesting things are.  Not only that, going off trail is important for kids. Without a trail to follow they learn how to trust their footing; what to do on a slippery rock or an unsteady one, for instance, and they find the places in nature that inspire awe or are home to small critters.  Once they find these magical places and gain the confidence to handle rough terrain they bond with nature and themselves.  If you have a group of friends with kids that love the outdoors consider creating an Forest Playgroup and go off trail as a group in regular outings.

How to Raise Free Range Kids and Stay Sane

photo by Melissa Quaal {a happy stitch}


3. Create a Private & Hidden, Kids-Only Space Outside (allowing lots of unstructured outdoor play) 

Kids need to let their imaginations run wild.  When they are constantly supervised, it’s too easy for a grown-up, albeit a well-meaning one, to interfere and break up a fight or try to fit a more linear structure to a nonsensical game.  But, when that happens kids lose the opportunity to negotiate problems with their friends and exercise their abstract, creative minds.  Try identifying or building a spot outdoors that kids can play without supervision but that still leaves the grown-ups feeling only a little uneasy.  If you have a big yard, maybe a section of it can be left a bit hidden from view and a small table and chairs placed there.  Or find a regular spot on a hike where the grown-ups picnic and leave the kids to do their thing

How to Raise Free Range Kids and Stay Sane

photo by Melissa Quaal {a happy stitch}


4. Take an Unplugged Day and let boredom guide you 

Have you come across the Unplugged Day movement? While some of the language seems to shame those of us that rely on technology throughout the day (ahem), the idea is a lovely one.  Turn off all the things! What about doing that, on a day of your choosing, for the whole family!  See what happens when the screens aren’t there to distract you and the kids.  Maybe it will be a disaster but maybe it will lead to finally duct-taping all that cardboard together or that ultimate old-fashioned thing…a book! 

 How to Raise Free Range Kids and Stay Sane

photo by Melissa Quaal {a happy stitch}


5. Go on a trust-building walk! 

When we go on walks around our sleepy suburban town we always let the kids run ahead to the intersection.  My husband and I trust that the kids will stop and wait for us before crossing but we sure get lots of looks from passers-by. Our kids know that we trust them but it’s evident the rest of the world thinks we are nuts!  Even in our town with little and slow traffic.  We have, of course, extensively discussed the need for waiting at the intersection and checking before crossing a driveway with a car in.  At ages 6 and 8, we think they can handle that. 

Try a trust-building walk with your kids and do the following things:

  •  Let them run ahead to an intersection on their own,
  • Put the kids in charge of crossing the street. Have them do the checking and double-checking and then ask them to tell you when it is safe to cross.
  • Let the kids guide you home.  On your way home from the park? Ask the kids to tell you how to get home.  Have them be in charge of the walk and don’t say a word. If they get it wrong, you are there to help (if they ask) but it builds confidence in their own navigational skills. An added bonus, it could help them find their way home if they ever get lost!

6. Build a Treehouse! 

What is even better than on the ground unsupervised play? Unsupervised play in a tree

How to Raise Free Range Kids and Stay Sane

photo from Andrea’s Notebook {Kid Baltimore source}


7. Have a (camp)fire and throw stuff in it. 

This one is so simple.  Have a campfire and instead of stopping kids from dropping their marshmallow in it, let them! Throw a marshmallow into the fire and see what happens (it’s amazing, by the way!).  They might just want to see how other things react in a fire.  Let them poke at the burned results and try burning other things.  Know what that is? Science!  


8. Try out Archery or whittling. 

Yep. Give your child (at the right age, of course) a spear or a pocket knife! In addition to the great fun they will have, it builds skills and spatial awareness. If this one freaks you out, and I include myself in this category, take the archery class as a family.  Even more family bonding doing such an out of the ordinary activity together. 

How to Raise Free Range Kids and Stay Sane

photo by Sabrina Norrie {family and footprints}


9. Let them walk to a nearby friend’s house on their own.

Do your kids have a friend that lives near you? Arrange for them to walk to their house and have their parents call you when they get there.  I know, I know, this isn’t exactly the “be home by dinner” rule of the free-wheeling eighties but it is something.  It’s baby steps to independence!


10. Leave them at home alone. 

Speaking of the eighties, remember the era of “latchkey kids”? I was a latchkey kid myself! Now, before you get your sad puppy eyes on thinking about poor little me I need to tell you that I loved it! I had the house to myself! I could play Barbie dolls in the living room without anyone kicking me out! It was fantastic.  Once your kids are at an age that feels good to you, try it out.  Run to the grocery store or enjoy a coffee and leave them to their own devices at home for a while.  


The world needs more creativity and more abstract thinking for all the challenges ahead.  It also needs strong, self-reliant kids not just because they grow up and take over our world but also because they keep us young and bring the world joy.  

How to Raise Free Range Kids and Stay Sane

photo by Melissa Quaal {a happy stitch}

The job of being a parent is deeper and more complex than simply protecting children from harm.  It’s also ensuring our children can face life’s inevitable fears and hurts armed with a strong sense of their own ability to survive and thrive.  As the author W. Hodding Carter said,  

“There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots; the other, wings.”

It’s time to bust out the wings moms and dads! Even if it happens just one little step at a time. 

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